Summary: A strong woman who was Mrs King, but also Coretta.
There were two main reasons I picked up this memoir. First, I read/heard/saw somewhere an excerpt of My Life, My Love, My Legacy that included a section about Martin Luther King Jr not allowing Coretta to meet JFK after the March on Washington. A march that did not include any women in significant roles other than music during the program. I cannot remember what pointed this out to me, but that was why I picked up the book in the first place.
The second reason that moved the book up on my reading list is because because I was told that My Life, My Love, My Legacy directly addresses the rumors of Martin Luther King, Jr’s womanizing and affairs. Part of how she addresses this is by building the case, that is well documented outside of this book, that J Edgar Hoover was attempting to smear King, that he tapped personal and private phones and attempted to discredit King to both political leaders like JFK and to the public. She says that JFK personally took MLK on a walk outside the White House in the gardens so that he could warn MLK about Hoover. (RFK separately also warned MLK about Hoover.) Coretta believed that warning MLK outside was to prevent Hoover from hearing about the warning from bugs in the White House. Also there were several other sources in press and law enforcement that warned MLK and those around him that he was going to be specifically targeted using affairs as a way to discredit him. Coretta says that these warnings were all before there was any hint of affairs in the press.
I am not prepared to say that there was not ever an affair, Coretta Scott King would certainly not be the first wife who’s husband had an affair and she did not know about it. But I do think that the common knowledge that ‘everyone knows’ MLK had affairs should be tempered. Much of the evidence from what I can tell has been from FBI reports, which are known to have been disreputable. As far as I know, there is only one woman, Georgia Davis Powers, that has ever come forward saying that she had an affair with King, although she also denied the affair in other places. And from his circle of friends and supporters, the only person that I know that asserted that King had affairs was Ralph Abernathy, who Coretta Scott King here suggests was jealous of King and his position and may not have been truthful in his reports about the affairs. And some of the specific allegations about sex parties and orgies that Abernathy reports were disputed by other aides that would have been present. The disagreements with Abernathy continue throughout the book.
The other factor that I still frequent hear from detractors from King’s legacy are those that suggest that King was not really a Christian, primarily pointing to papers as a young college student, while ignoring significant contrary evidence from later in his life. For many I am not sure what proof that you could give that would convince them, but My Life, My Love, My Legacy does strongly assert his faith and the role of prayer and seeking after God played in their work as a couple.
In some ways the middle section (after MLK’s death and before the later section about her kids) feels like a political memoir. Mrs King deserves significant credit for keeping MLK’s legacy alive. At his death he was very unpopular, among African Americans as well as Whites. His movement into anti-war and anti-poverty platforms, not just issues of segregation and voting rights alienated some conservative wings of the Black Community. His commitment to non-violence and reconciliation alienated more progressive wings that were were focused on Black Power and the acceptance of violence in self defense. Most Whites at the time of his death disapproved of both the tactics and the message. But his death meant that he could be loved, while his message was sanitized. Coretta made sure that the less popular aspects of his work did not disappear, continuing his Memphis rallies days after his death and leading antiwar protests within a couple weeks of his death. You can still go to the King Center to be trained in non-violent protest methods.
These chapters felt like they were the type of recitation of issues that many other politician’s memoirs seem to focus on. Coretta Scott King may not have been a politician, but she was interested in issues and she did much more to work toward those issues than most probably realize. Her vocal support of gay rights started in the 1970s and she became more vocal about it in the 1990s. Her support of nuclear non-proliferation and human rights were a significant part of her work and legacy early on, even though she is known primarily for being MLK’s wife.
My Life, My Love, My Legacy spends time on internal politics of the civil rights and post civil rights Black leadership. Andrew Young looks great. Abernathy, Jessie Jackson, Hosea Williams and a number of others do not. She does not claim to have been perfect and certainly points out a number of mistakes, especially with leadership issues of the King Center. But all of this is with a bit of detachment. I am not sure how much the method of writing is responsible for the detachment and how much is about personality. Barbara Reynolds, a reporter who became a friend and later through Coretta’s influence a minister, actually put the posthumous memoir together. They had a 30 year relationship and the memoir was intentionally worked on, but it was not released until 10 years after Coretta Scott King’s death. The detached tone may be more about that writing method and distance from the passion of the moment, but it is unclear.
Once she moved to discussion the children, which she does in detail and in large part as a discussion of legacy, there is real passion and warmth. I am not sure how I would feel about my mother speaking as publicly about my strengths and weaknesses and difficulties as she is about her children. But I hope the children saw this before it was published. The issues of legacy and the arguments with the National Park Service over land and buildings and the intellectual property fights over MLK’s speeches and writing has seemed petty when I have read about them in other places. But here they are presented as important protections of the legacy of a father and husband.
The last issue which needs to be noted is the discussion of whether MLK’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. And there she presents the case for a conspiracy, although the evidence is circumstantial. My personal inclination is that a conspiracy would not have lasted the years since his assassination. A civil court (with a lower threshold of evidence required than a criminal court) found that the government was likely involved in the assassination in 1999. But most people do not know that and the discussions of a conspiracy theory around MLK’s death do seem far fetched at this point.
However, as I noted above, we do know that the FBI did target King for a smear campaign. We do know that there was blackmail by the FBI to try to get MLK to commit suicide and there is evidence that at least some, if not all of the assertions of the FBI about MLK’s affairs was false evidence. The recent documents released under Trump were mostly presented as truth when they were released, but for people that had been following along, they were additional evidence of trumped up evidence by the FBI. The documents and recordings that the summary documents that were based on were not released with the summaries and so it will be additional years before the raw data that the FBI was working with is released to historians, if it ever is.
I understand belief in a conspiracy for King’s death given the FBI’s character assassination under J Edgar Hoover, but I am still unpersuaded that MLK’s death was a conspiracy. Although the refusal of the FBI to release full documentation and to do a full investigation makes it hard to completely disprove.
Coretta Scott King was fascinating and important in her own right. Martin did seem to under-appreciate her own talents and abilities, although he did depend on her especially for maintaining a stable family life and her fundraising and organizational skills. This is a worthy read because it is from her and has her stamp of approval of her story. But I am interested in reading a biography that has a bit more objectivity to the stories. Many of these stories felt particularly one sided. Now, 12 years after her death, but before the death of everyone around her, would be a good time for an in-depth biography. If anyone is aware of one that has been written that I have missed or aware of one being worked on I would love to hear about it.